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OKOTOKIAN: Non-profits rise to the challenge

“A lot of people were frightened when this first hit, not knowing – will somebody get sick, will we have to close our doors, what’s going to happen?”

A global pandemic made operations difficult and brought fundraising efforts to a grinding halt, but Foothills charities are making the most of community support as they continue to provide valuable services.

From finding unique ways to raise money to adjusting to new methods of connecting and providing care, charitable groups in the region are benefitting from technology and thinking outside the box as they navigate through uncharted territory in 2020.

Foothills Country Hospice

Dawn Elliott would be the first to admit the COVID-19 pandemic has been a rough go.

The executive director of the Foothills Country Hospice said impact was felt immediately, as visiting restrictions changed by the day until the moment nobody was allowed on the premises except medical staff and patients.

“Our entire team and our families were very saddened by this news,” said Elliott, adding the hospice arranged virtual visits wherever possible and even had some families of ground-level patients stand outside their loved ones’ rooms to visit.

“It was very difficult to see the anguish in the faces of both the residents and their loved ones. The most difficult time for us was when one of our residents passed away without their family present.”

For a time staff had to don full personal protective equipment (PPE), including gowns, masks, gloves and face shields. It was very hot to work in, and staff members were relieved when the restrictions lessened – they are now only required to wear masks.

However, they are still unable to provide what Elliott considers to be an integral part of hospice care: a hug.

“Touch – especially hugging – is what we naturally do at hospice to comfort, console and provide support during a most difficult time,” she said.

For a long time, volunteers were not allowed in the building, which impacted staff. The hospice’s volunteers take on many tasks such as supporting residents, manning the front desk, assisting with grief support, and even baking and preparing meals in the kitchen.

They were not permitted in the hospice until Sept. 17, so for five months these additional duties fell to nurses and other employees, in addition to new screening protocols once limited family members were allowed to visit.

Grief support was cancelled as groups could not gather, but a solution was found to provide the service for families.

“Knowing how important this support is for our grieving families, our co-ordinator of volunteers set up some seasoned volunteers with the ability to at least make phone calls to those grieving from their own homes,” said Elliott. “We were so grateful to be able to offer something during such a difficult time.”

While the feeling at the hospice had changed, so had its ability to raise operating funds. Two of the organization’s major events were scheduled to take place during the pandemic, and they were reworked to be feasible despite a change in plans.

The Rally 4 Hospice on Sept. 12 ended with a drive-in movie rather than the typical dinner and auction, and netted $145,712, which was about $2,000 more than anticipated. The Hike for Hospice, which usually runs in May, was rescheduled to be a Halloween event for people of all ages.

It all helps, since the hospice only receives about 57 per cent of its funding from Alberta Health Services and relies on the community to help raise about $1.3 million.

Elliott said she applied for many grants and is grateful for all support people have provided to help keep the doors open, including the food provided by Okotoks Sobeys since the facility opened in 2008 so resident meals are covered throughout their stay.

It’s still tough, and a little touch-and-go.

Despite financial struggles, Elliott said the hospice continues to provide care and staff are relieved to have visitors back in the building and families connecting with their loved ones.

The first few months of the pandemic were surreal, she said.

“A lot of people were frightened when this first hit, not knowing – will somebody get sick, will we have to close our doors, what’s going to happen?” said Elliott. “But everybody stepped up and made a big difference.

“Keeping as many people out as possible helped, but it just felt like our home wasn’t the same.”

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Big Brothers Big Sisters

Mentoring programs between adult and youth matches in the Okotoks area hasn’t skipped a beat during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“For children and youth who are facing adversity really there’s no better intervention than a caring, consistent relationship,” said Melissa Hill, team lead of youth and targeted programs for Big Brothers Big Sisters Calgary and Area (BBBS). “So as the pandemic started we did not stop our programs, but rather we pivoted to ensure the children and youth in need of mentoring were able to get that.”

The community-based programs, which see adult mentors matched with young people in need of a supportive relationship, took a virtual turn starting in March, with matches meeting over Zoom or other online platforms.

Staff of BBBS worked to provide ideas to help those pairs stay connected and engaged with one another from afar, like suggesting certain games they could play together online.

“We also put out to all our matches on social media a virtual bingo to play with your match,” said Hill. “So maybe you had to go do certain things virtually, like show each other your favourite YouTube channel, those sorts of things.”

Through a partnership with Big Brothers Big Sisters and Rogers Communications, those who were in need of a device were given the tools necessary to stay connected, she said.

The story was different for the school programs operated by BBBS, as schools closed their doors March 15.

“We did have to facilitate communication and closure to those relationships at the end of the school year through staff at the agency,” said Hill.

Despite the changes to how meet-ups and programs looked, everyone who was in a mentoring relationship prior to COVID-19 was able to maintain their connection, she said.

It was exciting when, after months of online meetings, the community-based mentors and mentees were able to meet in-person for the first time, following Alberta Health Services guidelines, she said.

“Matches were able to reignite that face-to-face with restrictions – social distancing, masks, being outside where possible, those sorts of things,” said Hill.

Now, people are approaching their relationships from their own comfort levels. Some are meeting regularly in-person, while others are keeping their distance and maintaining virtual connections, she said.

“We’re really taking it at the pace of the Big (mentor) and the Little (mentee),” said Hill.

Between March and October, the organization also saw an increase in the number of children requesting a mentor.

She said BBBS was able to continue bringing in new mentors throughout the pandemic as well, with interviews being held virtually, but there is always a need for more volunteers.

“We still need new people, we still have young people in Okotoks waiting for mentors,” said Hill.

While the number of mentors and mentees didn’t drop during the pandemic, the organization’s funding prospects did. The annual Bowl for Kids’ Sake event, usually one of its largest fundraisers of the year, was cancelled in March and has not yet been rescheduled.

“We’ve struggled like all non-profits this year, and we’re still trying to work out how we’ll pivot in this area as well,” said Hill.

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Foothills Advocacy in Motion Society

On March 16, Foothills Advocacy in Motion (FAIM) made the decision to close its office doors at its Okotoks, High River and Strathmore locations.

“Even at the time I was thinking, ‘Is this an overreaction?’” said Gerry McCallum, executive director of FAIM. “Like everyone, I think the reality of the pandemic took us by surprise.”

FAIM is an organization that supports special needs adults. Its goal is to keep its clients living and working in the community.

All branches of FAIM closed, and while the employment and day services department was also forced to shut down as many businesses and public spaces closed up, but the home living department felt the pressure.

About 70 to 90 people are part of the home-living program, which involves living with families or care providers, but that number jumped when the day program – which usually helps people find employment and other daytime opportunities – meant more people were leaning on home care.

“That home living department really kicked into high gear,” said McCallum. “Individuals who would come to work during the day or come to a day program were now home 24/7, so it really did affect those people.”

He said caregivers stepped up over the last seven months, particularly through the first three months of the shut-down when everything turned indoors.

Support was offered to those who suddenly found themselves at home, with job coaches or program leaders meeting virtually as much as possible.

“I would say we had some good success with that,” said McCallum. “A lot of our staff really were quite creative in offering online cooking classes or fitness classes, maybe did some sort of virtual travel with people.”

Even those who may not have considered working with platforms like Zoom in the past gained new skills through the pandemic as they changed up how to meet and work with one another, he said. It created an opportunity for people to develop new technical abilities they wouldn’t have explored before.

“That was a real benefit for everybody – for my management team, for my frontline staff, and for the people we support,” said McCallum.

After a couple of months, about two-thirds of the FAIM staff had been laid off, primarily front-end day program workers.

“That was hard in mid-May, it was tough to do,” said McCallum.

By early July, day programs began to reopen and now, after four months of slowly reopening regular routines, everyone is beginning to adjust to a new normal, he said.

It hasn’t been easy, with limitation and regulations everywhere in the community like time limits in the library or having to make appointments for recreation facilities and restricted use of change rooms and other amenities.

“It’s been challenging for us, especially because I really like our programs to be community-based, which means being out in the community, and that’s hard to do when the community isn’t really open yet,” said McCallum. “Up until COVID, we were really making some good connections and it certainly wasn’t perfect, but we were out in the community quite a bit and this has really sort of taken us back a few years just with what can we do in the community with not so many things open.”

Like other non-profit groups, FAIM is now facing a new challenge as it assesses funding for the end of 2020 and into the new year.

Three of the organization’s major fundraiser events have been cancelled, and some have been rejigged, like turning the half-marathon in High River into a virtual race. McCallum said he was unsure what to expect from the unique take on a traditional event, but was pleased to see the marathon bring in $18,000.

The community has also helped with donations, with people giving privately and a $7,850 donation from 100 Women Who Care in June to help boost funds.

“People have thought to choose us as a possible donation destination, but as far as a fundraising activity, we’ve really, for this year, just cancelled,” said McCallum. “Partially because we just didn’t think it was right to go with our hand out when a lot of people are suffering right now financially.”

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